In a ‘run-down town that feels forgotten’, some say they’re rooting for Reform

Reporter: Charlotte Hall, Local Democracy Reporter
Date published: 01 July 2024

It’s a sunny afternoon in Oldham town centre.

People take their lunch breaks under the trees in Linear Park.

A-Level students hover in groups around street benches, avoiding revision.

Pensioners exchange wisecrack greetings as they pass each other on their way to the shops.

But the sun-dappled high street belies the frustration boiling just below the surface.

In an area with high levels of deprivation and one of the biggest gaps between the highest and lowest incomes in England, many feel the recently published major party manifestos ‘aren’t offering much hope’ for people in a place like Oldham.

“Oldham’s being neglected,” a suited gentleman in his 40s told us.

He didn’t want to give his name, but went on: “It’s run down, it’s poor, it’s disgusting.

"We’ve been forgotten about here.”

And he wasn’t the only one who felt that way.

Noah, 19, who was out enjoying the sun with his friend Naomi, 21, thinks he will back the Lib Dems or the Greens.

“The politicians just seem to be looking at London but there’s 66 million of us who don’t live in London,” he added.

“I don’t think either Labour or Conservatives will stick to their manifesto pledges anyway.”

Brenda, 38, a local carer, said she’d be voting Labour just to get the Conservatives out – but had ‘gotten bored’ trying to read their manifesto.

Missing from the two major parties’ campaign materials is a comprehensive plan to help families struggling with the cost of living crisis, some said, but also more broadly a ‘vision’ on how to help boroughs such as Oldham improve their standard of living.

There is still significant support for some of the mainstream parties.

But Labour and the Conservative party are increasingly seeing their votes eaten into by support for smaller parties and independents.

One of the parties that has been gaining ground in the borough is Reform UK – despite the party’s recent controversies.

Before we went out to speak to Oldhamers, Nigel Farage had already sparked anger about his comments claiming there were ‘streets in Oldham where no one speaks English’ and a number of candidates such as Andrew Raw in Darlington (now dropped by the party) were accused of sharing “extreme racism and hateful ideology”.

Andrea, an Oldham local in her forties who spoke to us while truanting from a work meeting, said: “I don’t want the two main parties to get in.

"I know they probably will anyway, but I’m voting Reform.”

For Andrea, it was the promise to raise the income tax threshold to £20,000 that most attracted her to the party.

“I like the policy idea. You only pay tax on income above 20k. I think it will give people hope,” she said.

“It’s been Labour run so long in Oldham and everything’s gone down the pan.

"You can’t get doctors appointments, I don’t hear good things about schools and social care has gone downhill.”

But others admitted they were were drawn to Nigel Farage’s party by their stance on immigration.

“It’s the illegal immigrants for me,” Naomi, 44, told us, as she was waiting for a taxi with her mum outside Tommyfield Market.

“We’ve not got enough money in this country as it is and we’re spending it on refugees.

"And I just need to think they need to put it back into this country and rebuild this country for the British people – even people that have moved from overseas.

"Everybody’s welcome – I just think they need to look at immigration more.

“We’re already struggling. Our cost of living is awful.

"A lot of friends have been kicked out of their houses. There’s just no room for people,” she said.

Gillian Fletcher

An elderly voter, who did not wish to be named, agreed that ‘immigration’ was his main concern.

The long-term Labour voter said he was leaning towards Reform because he believed that ‘most asylum seekers are just money seekers’, an idea rejected by charities.

“I’m not being cruel but every boat that comes I’d turn it right round and send it back,” he said.

Ronni, 58, a volunteer for the Poverty Action Network, did not reveal who she would be voting for.

But she felt there hadn’t been enough mention of the cost of living crisis in most manifestos.

“We need more input to get people from the poorest areas more money and support,” she said.

“We try our best, but there isn’t enough funding to support people.”

Meanwhile, for Ahmed, 40, who was enjoying a sunny lunch break with his work colleague on a bench outside Sainsbury’s, ‘it’s all about the standard of living’.

“We need better wages,” he said. “Oldham is below the average salary – I think it’s 24 grand.

"We should be bringing that up to the average UK salary, which is about £30,000.”

Ahmed said he was struggling to choose between the Conservatives and Labour.

Labour have claimed they will increase the minimum wage to a ‘genuine living wage’.

Conservatives are claiming they will cut National Insurance by 2p and reduce taxes for the self-employed.

“Oldham also really needs a business friendly environment right now,” he said, indicating that he thought the Conservatives were better for business “but the rest of their policies aren’t the best”.

Mo, his colleague, chimed in: “Unfortunately, we live in a capitalist society.

"If Oldham isn’t generating funds, we get left behind.”

The 31-year-old said he wouldn’t vote either Labour or Conservatives “for reasons I won’t say but you can probably guess”.

But he liked the Greens’ pledge to “tax the rich to pay for social services”.

Housing is another huge election issue in Oldham.

The latest statistics found more than 7,500 people were waiting for social housing this year, while 11,000 applications were waiting to be processed.

Meanwhile, private rents have risen more in Oldham than any other Greater Manchester area.

While most parties have promised to build new homes, questions remain about how quickly these new-builds will go up, where they will be and how affordable they will be.

“We’re already seeing more and more homeless people, with the council having to put them up in hotels because there’s no temporary housing either,” one resident, who asked not to be named, said.

“The housing pledge is about the only decent thing in there [the Labour manifesto]. But will they actually do it?”

Besides the cost of living and housing, another big issue for Oldham is the NHS.

The NHS – alongside the council – employs around 20 percent of working people in Oldham, more than 19,000 people.

The Conservatives have pledged to keep NHS spending above inflation level and hire more staff, though haven’t given any wider pledges on how to reform the ‘crisis-ridden system’.

Labour has promised to ‘get the NHS back on its feet’, though it has not yet gone into too much detail about how it will achieve this beyond encouraging ‘out of hours’ appointments.

Lib Dems, Greens and Reform UK have all also promised to tackle waiting lists and hire more doctors.

Gillian Fletcher, who worked as a phlebotomist for the NHS until she retired in March this year, is voting Labour.

She said the NHS “is in a bad way.

"Half of my colleagues have left. Doctors are leaving.

"It’s on its knees and people have just had enough.

“I loved my job, so it makes me really sad.”

Party manifestos have not reassured Oldhamers.

And even where they look promising, every single person we spoke to had the exact same question on their lips: “Whoever gets in – will they keep their word?”

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